By Mark Peikert
Over the last few years, a theatrical season hasn"t seemed complete without an A.R. Gurney play. Just last year found audiences enjoying three: The Grand Manner, Office Space and Black Tie all enjoyed their New York, if not world, premieres. Now, The Actor"s Company Theatre is reviving Gurney"s 1974 Children, opening Oct. 27 at Theatre Row. But Gurney, 80, is somewhat wary of the word â€œprolific, even if there is no other word for it.
â€œIt"s an adjective that has certainly been used to describe me, not always as a compliment, however, Gurney said over the phone. â€œTo be prolific is to be accused of dashing things off and not developing a particular idea or work as much as it should be. But I don"t know if that"s true or not. I"m 80 years old and I"ve written all my life. I"ve got the habit.
Known as an avid chronicler of the WASP set, most of Gurney"s plays are set in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. But though Gurney hasn"t slowed down, TACT is offering fans of the playwright and casual audiences alike a chance to enjoy an earlier Gurney play. Certainly, TACT Co-Artistic Director Scott Alan Evans is excited about the chance to prove that Gurney is something other than an upstate WASP.
â€œI"m a big admirer of his work and I think he"s a somewhat unappreciated playwright, in that he was very innovative, Evans said. â€œ[Children] has a wonderful edge to it that maybe some of his later works don"t have; because he writes about WASPS and so much of that clan is about repressing their emotions, I think some people see his work as cold. It couldn"t be further from the truth.
Children is about a mother and her three offspring, Randy, Barbara and Pokey, the latter of whom doesn"t appear for the duration of the play. Over the course of the Fourth of July, 1970, relationships, allegiances and inheritances are tested on an island off the coast of New England. When the show was revived regionally in 2009, Gurney tweaked his ending slightly, and that revised version of the script will be used when TACT produces the show as well.
â€œI just opened a little door that I hadn"t opened before, Gurney explained. â€œI"ve been around longer and I made this speech at the end a little more humane than the original. It"s a "70s perspective, no doubt about that, and I have to keep that in mind. It seems to me a human touch I forgot to put in.
Evans, however, was intending to revive the original, published script until Gurney sent him the 2009 ending. â€œIt"s a very subtle difference, Evans said, â€œand we"re actually going with the updated ending, which is a little more ambiguous, a little more truthful. [Gurney] certainly feels strongly that the more recent ending is the more successful. As he said, â€˜The old ending may have been more traditional dramaturgy, but the new ending is more human." And I think he"s absolutely right.
Evans is hopeful that TACT can remind audiences that Gurney"s work is more than traditional dramaturgy and rescue his innovations from dusty bookshelves, returning them to the public consciousness.
For his part, Gurney would love to see future lives for some of those lesser-known plays, including Old Boy and Later Life. One the playwright need not worry about is Love Letters, his perpetually produced two-hander that is a beacon for celebrities and benefit organizers alike.
â€œThere"s no counting [how many times Love Letters is performed] because there are so many pirated productions, Gurney said. â€œIf you can put that play on and get out of town before we can nab youâ€¦People who run charities or not-for-profit things say, â€˜Gurney wouldn"t mind if we did it here for charitable organization." But I like to have enough income to donate to my own organizations! I knew Kitty Carlisle Hart a little bit, and I ran into her on the street one day and she told me, â€˜Tony Randall and I are doing Love Letters in Des Moines and we"re each getting paid $10,000!" And the contract very clearly says that if the actors get paid, Gurney gets paid the same amount. And so I called my agent and we made a little!
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